It’s time to put a stop to misogyny in business

Tomi Isaacs calls time on sexism in the workplace and says people should be judged on their actions, not a facet of their identity

Credit: Aviva plc

The sexist heckling endured by Aviva CEO Amanda Blanc at the company’s first AGM in two years was an unwelcome reminder that entrenched, sexist views of women in the workplace are still alive and kicking. 

Blanc was told that she was not “the man for the job” by one shareholder and should be “wearing trousers” by another. A third, commenting sarcastically on gender diversity on Aviva’s board, said “they are so good at basic housekeeping activities”. This was Aviva’s first in-person AGM since the start of the pandemic, and Blanc’s first since joining the company as CEO in July 2020. 

There are only nine female chief executives at the UK’s top 100 listed companies and no women of colour. With women still a rarity at the helm of major businesses, derogatory snipes relating to their gender rather than their performance are still commonplace. 

Blanc said in a LinkedIn post after the event that, “after 30 years plus”, she was mostly a “little immune” to these attacks; however, the outspoken nature of these comments had surprised her. “This type of stuff used to be said in private – perhaps from the safety of four walls inside an office. The fact that people are now making these comments in a public AGM is a new development for me personally,” she said.

Let’s not underplay the abuse that Blanc suffered. The comments were intentional personal attacks on her identity and were deliberately said in a public forum to undermine her credibility. On show was the misogyny that still pervades the world of business.

The world over, women are vastly underrepresented in senior management and overrepresented in low-paid roles. In the UK, women make up only 32 per cent of positions of power in society (Sex and Power 2022, Fawcett Society) and it is this gap of representation of women’s talent and skills that contributes to sexism in the workplace. Yet, as Blanc’s experience shows, it does not matter how high up the ladder you are, no woman is immune.

Indeed, Blanc has experienced an increasing frequency of sexist attacks aligned to her career trajectory. “The more senior the role I have taken, the more overt the unacceptable behaviour,” she said. This is despite Aviva’s value having risen by more than 40 per cent since Blanc’s tenure.  

Even before the pandemic, women were facing a 100-year wait to achieve full equality with men and, in the aftermath of Covid-19, the World Economic Forum has extended this by almost 40 more years, to 136 years. 

Gender bias and gender stereotypes remain one of the biggest barriers for women’s advancement in the workplace, and that bias is often demonstrated in the language used to describe women. Catalyst research has shown that men and women are perceived to have different competencies. Men are seen to demonstrate more ‘taking charge’ behaviours, while women exhibit ‘taking care’ behaviours, which are not as highly valued in terms of being an effective leader. This creates a false impression that women are not suitable for the top roles. In reality, research has shown very little difference between how women and men lead.

Calling the remarks out at the AGM was Aviva’s chair, George Culmer, and in doing so he sent a clear message that sexism is not tolerated at Aviva. “I do not expect and would [not] want to hear [sexist comments] at any future AGM. I’m flabbergasted, to be honest,” Culmer said, describing them as “simply inappropriate”. By stepping in and immediately discrediting the remarks, he modelled the behaviour that he expected to see throughout the company.   

It is this demonstration of a high-profile man showing zero tolerance for sexism that Catalyst has identified as a major factor in empowering the majority of men (86 per cent), who say they want to challenge sexism in their workplace, to act. Once the top of the house is in, the obstacles stopping other men are greatly reduced.  

Two investor groups, ShareSoc and the UK Shareholders’ Association, have also come forward calling for strict penalties to be enforced on individuals using sexist language and behaviour, including lifetime bans for offenders. Blanc, too, has expressed a desire for new policies, particularly at AGMs, but has not specified what these should be.

It is heartening to see the public outcry that these insults have evoked. There is no place for sexism in the business world or in a modern society. The time has come to stamp out petty prejudices and allow people to be judged only on their actions and not a facet of their identity. Attacks on an individual because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or religion are unacceptable, and it is up to individuals and organisations to demonstrate zero tolerance towards such behaviour.

Tomi Isaacs is senior director for UK corporate engagement at Catalyst